The Cauvery Water Dispute

Frequently asked questions and a backgrounder to understand the century-old dispute from its genesis to now. Why is Tamil Nadu happy? Why is Karnataka upset?

The Cauvery Water Dispute

What is this dispute over Cauvery water?

The use and development of Cauvery waters were regulated by agreements of 1892 and 1924 between the erstwhileprincely state of Mysore and the Madras presidency. The 1924 agreement hadbeen necessary because Madras had objected to Mysore building theKrishnarajasagar dam across the Cauvery, and the agreement facilitated it byallowing Madras to build the Mettur dam. A significant feature of theagreement was that it put restrictions on the extent of area that could besafely irrigated by the two states by using the Cauvery waters.

With the reorganizationof states in 1956, the situation changed a bit because the 802-km-longCauvery river, which originateas at Talacauvery in Kodagu district in Karnataka, traverses mainly through Karnataka and Tamil Naduwhile its basin covers areas in Kerala (which has three of its tributaries), and Karaikal region ofPondicherry, (now Puducherry) as well.

The basic dispute has always been about the sharing of waters in the CauveryBasin. As per the 1892 and 1924 agreements the approximate river water allotments were asfollows:

75% to Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry,
23% to Karnataka, and
the rest to Kerala .

So if it is all so clear-cut, where is the problem?

Unlike major north and north-eastern rivers like Indus, Ganga and Brhamaputrawhich originate from permanent glaciers, the Cauvery river is fed byseasonal monsoon rains and several tributaries. So in times of a heavy monsoonrains, this region witnesses excessive flow of water in the river and floods,but in times of insufficient rains, there is a drought like situation, and asthe irrigation needs of farmers are not met, the two states indulge in theancient ritual of blaming each other.

While pre-Independence disputes between Mysore (now largely Karnataka) and Madras(now largely Tamil Nadu and parts of Kerala) were largelysettled through arbitrations and agreements by the British, the division ofwater became a serious issue after state-reorganisation. Starting from 1959 andthroughout the 60s, Tamil Nadu objected to Karnataka building two dams but thelatter went ahead, as the fiver-rounds of talks to solve the dispute failed. In 1974,Karnataka asserted that the 1924 agreement entailed a discontinuation of the water supply to Tamil Nadu after 50years and the dispute as we know it today assumed centre-stage. Since the riveroriginates in Karnataka, it argued, the state was entitled how best to use theriver's water and was not bound by the agreements imposed on the maharaja ofMysore by the colonial government which, it added, were skewed heavily in favour ofTamil Nadu.

On the other hand, Tamil Nadu pleaded that it had already developed millions acres ofits agricultural land and as a result was heavily dependant on the existing pattern of usage.It claimed that any change in this pattern would adversely affect the livelihood of millions of farmers in the state. Ithad also been protesting the

In short Tamil, Nadu wanted to maintain status quo over its share of waterwhile Karnataka wanted to tap most of the water flowing from itsterritory.

Tamil Nadu, being the lower-riperian state, charges that Karnataka has builtnew dams and expanded the agricultural areas irrigated by the available water,thus affecting the water-supply down-stream. As a result, there has been adispute and tension between these two states over the division of water.

So was nothing done till now to resolve the dispute?

In 1976, after a series of discussions between the two states and the union government chaired by Jagjivan Ram, the then Irrigation Minister, a final draft was prepared based on findings of the a Cauvery Fact Finding Committee (CFFC) . This draft was accepted by all states and theunion government also made an announcement to that effect in Parliament. However, Tamil Nadu came under President’s rule soon after that and the agreement was put on the backburner. Thesuccessive AIADMK government of M G Ramachandran rejected the draft agreement andinsisted that the 1924 agreement had only provided for an extension and not a review. Itdemanded that a status quo should be restored and everyone should go back to the agreements of 1892 and 1924.Several meetings between the two states in the 1980s to find an amicable solution to the problem proved futile as there was no meeting ground between the two.

So, is that why the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal was formed?

Yes. In 1986, a farmer’s association from Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu moved the Supreme Court demanding the constitution of atribunal for adjudication for the Cauvery water dispute. In February 1990, the Supreme Court, while hearing the petition, directed the two states to complete negotiations before April 24. Following the failure of negotiations between the two states, the Supreme Court directed theunion government to constitute a tribunal to adjudicate the dispute and pass anaward and allocate water among the four states.

In accordance with Section 4 of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, the National Front government headed by V.P. Singh constituted the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal on June 2, 1990 with Chittatosh Mookerjee, retired chief justice of the Bombay High Court, as Chairman and N.S. Rao, retired judge of the Patna High Court, and S.D. Agarwala, retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, as members. Justice Mookerjee resigned in 1999 and N.P. Singh was appointed in his place.

Thereafter, the four parties to the dispute—Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala andPondicherry — presented theirdemands to the Tribunal as under:

Karnataka: 465 TMC
Kerala: 99.8 TMC
Pondicherry : 9.3 TMC
Tamil Nadu - the flow of the water should be in accordance with the terms of the agreements of 1892 and 1924;that is 566 TMC for Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry; 177 TMC for Karnataka and 5 TMC forKerala.

(TMC: Thousand Million Cubic feet)
When and what was the interim order given by the Tribunal?

On Supreme Court's instruction and Tamil Nadu's plea, the Tribunal gave an interim award on 25 June 1991. In coming up with this award, theTribunal calculated the average inflows into Tamil Nadu over a period of 10 years between 1980–81 and1989–90 and the extreme years (of drought and floods) were ignored from this calculation. The average worked out to 205 TMC which Karnataka had to ensure reached Tamil Nadu in a water year.

The award also stipulated the weekly and monthly flows to be ensured by Karnataka for each month of the water year. The tribunal further directed Karnataka not to increase it irrigated land area from the existing 11.2 lakhacres.

What happened to the interim award?

Following the interim award, Karnataka witnessed its worst anti-Tamil riots inwhich dozens were killed and thousands fled the state. The violence which was centered mainly in some parts of Bangalore lasted for about a month and most schools and educational institutions in Bangalore remained closed during this period. Chennai and few other parts of Tamil Nadu also saw sporadic instances of violence.

The Karnataka government also rejected the interim award and issued anordinance seeking to annul the Tribunal’s award. However, the Supreme Courtstruck down the ordinance issued by Karnataka and upheld the Tribunal’s awardwhich was subsequently gazetted by the government of India on 11 December 1991.


In 1992, 1993, and 1994, the rain was sufficient to pacify the the dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnatakafor the time being. But in 1995, the monsoons failed badly in Karnataka andit found itself unable fulfil the interim order. Tamil Nadu approached the Supreme Court demanding the immediate release of at least 30TMC, which the apex refused to entertain. The Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal examined the case and recommended that Karntaka releaseonly 11 TMC, which was again rejected by Karnataka. Tamil Nadu went back to the Supreme Court demanding that Karnataka be forced to obey theTribunal's order. The Supreme Court this time recommended that the then PrimeMinister P. V. Narasimha Rao intervene and find a political solution. The Prime Minister convened a meeting with the Chief Ministers of the two states and recommended that Karnataka release 6 TMC instead of the 11TMC that the tribunal ordered.Karnataka complied with the decision of the Prime Minister.


In 1998, the Cuavery River Authority (CRA) was formed with the Prime Ministeras its chairperson and the Chief Ministers of the four states as its membersto give effect to the implementation of the interim order and the related subsequent orders.Another body, the Cauvery Monitoring Committee, was formed as an expert body of engineers, technocrats and other officers who would take stock of the 'ground realities' and report to the CRA.

What is final order of the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal ?

After 16 years, the three-member Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal deliveredits 1000 page final award on February 5, 2007.While considering that the total availability of water the Cauvery basin spreadacross the 4 states is 740 TMC in a "normal year" the Tribunal hasallocated the water as follows:

Tamil Nadu: 419 TMC (which had demanded 512 TMC),
Karnataka: 270 TMC (which had demanded 465 TMC),
Kerala: 30 TMC, and
Pondicherry: 7 TMC

Besides allocating 726 TMC for the four states, the award reserves 10 TMC for environmentalpurposes and 4 TMC for inevitable outlets into the sea.


Thus as per the final award, Karnataka will release 192 TMC to TamilNadu from its Billigundlu site, which include 10 TMC meant for environmentalpurposes. Tamil Nadu will also get an additional 25 TMC through rainfallin the intervening distance between Billigundlu and Mettur. Thus, thetotal amount of water flowing from Karnataka's territory into Mettur damin Tamil Nadu will be 217 TMC and the rest of Tamil Nadu's share will come fromfrom rainfall and flows within its own territory. From its share of this192 TMC water that comes from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu will then release 7 TMC toPondicherry.


But who will regulate the division of water?

To regulate the release of water, a monitoring authority is to beconstituted.

What if there is shortage of water to due to less rainfall?

The Tribunal is suitably vague. Its final award has not given a detailed formula in situations when thereshortage of water due to insufficient rains. It merely says that in suchsituations, the allocated shares should be proportionally reduced.

What is the reaction to the final award of the Tribunal?

Actually, Tamil Nadu points out that it gets only a little more fromKarnataka (217-7 = 210 TMC) than what it was awarded by the interim order in1991 (205 TMC) but the government and the people of the state have largelyhailed the February 5 final orderof the Tribunal, calling it fair and equitable (though Jayalalitha has triedpuncturing CM Karunanidhi's balloon by some nitpicking).Pondicherry has also welcomed the Tribunal's final award andthe union minister for water resources Saifuddin Soz has also maintainedthat all the states will have to agree to the verdict of the Tribunal.


Karnataka, on the other hand, feels short-changed as it feels that it hasemerged even worse-off than what the interim order awarded it, which had led tomassive protests in the state. And since the water needs of the state have grownover the years, there is an economic and therefore a political cost of theaward, and expectedly the Karnataka government has said it will file a revision petitionwithin the stipulated 90 days before the tribunal seeking a reviewof the order, terming it as "shocking" and"unacceptable". There have been sporadic protests against the award aswell.